As the Complete Streets movement grows, it is inevitable that some people will misunderstand what it is all about. That appears to be the case with Topeka, Kansas. The city levied a half-cent sales tax to be used for road maintenance and improvements (including sidewalks). Hope was high that this would be an opportunity to begin to complete Topeka’s streets; community groups had sponsored a Complete Streets Workshop in June for city planners and engineers and even held a community pep rally for the concept. But a couple of weeks ago, city manager Norton Bonaparte made a distinction between road repairs, such as filling potholes, and “Complete Streets elements,” declaring that the road repairs would be funded through the bond measure, but “Complete Streets elements” that added “extra costs” would not. The City Council will need to come up with extra funds for these elements, and he proposed budgeting $100,000 annually from general funds.
Bonaparte was making common mistake by using Complete Streets as a synonym for the bicycle/pedestrian/transit features of a roadway. Of course that is not what Complete Streets means – it means routinely considering the needs of all road users in each road project, with the expectation that the available funding is meant to create a complete transportation corridor. By definition, Complete Streets is the opposite of having to find special funds for road users other than automobiles.
Unfortunately, we have seen this misunderstanding repeated in a subtler way, when people who seem enthusiastic about Complete Streets then shake their heads, saying their community can’t afford it; it is clear they are still thinking of non-motorized and transit elements as ‘extra amenities.’ In fact, adopting a Complete Streets policy is a shift in priorities to include the needs of all road users. Most communities have found that increased costs are negligible; others have found ways to phase in improvements over time, and many have decided that creating a quality road that serves everyone creates better long-term value and contributes to community livability.
So we invite the city manager to either change his stance or at least say what he really means: that the sales tax investments will not cover the needs of non-motorized users or transit patrons. It is clear that Topeka is a long way from having a Complete Streets approach in its transportation program, but we hope that will change with time.